Time is running short if the United States wishes to prevent North Korea from acquiring the ability to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon. Recognizing this, the administration and outside advisors are floating a range of options to put pressure on Pyongyang. But most of these proposals are simply variants of ideas that have already been tried—and failed. A radically different approach is needed. If the United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons, it must be willing to allow the communist government in North Korea to survive.
The price is steep, but the alternatives are worse. North Korea has already conducted five nuclear-weapons tests, and on July 4 tested a missile with enough energy to travel at least 5,500 kilometers, officially qualifying it as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). There is little reason to doubt that North Korea will sooner or later overcome the remaining technological hurdles in the way of its goal: the capability to reach a major U.S. city with a nuclear weapon small enough to be carried by a missile, but rugged enough to survive the rigors of being blasted into space and reentering through the earth’s atmosphere.
Previous U.S. efforts to steer North Korea off this path—economic aid, multilateral negotiations, cyberattacks, relying on Chinese pressure—have clearly not been a match for Pyongyang’s overwhelming desire to possess that capability. North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile progress have only accelerated in recent years. For decades, U.S. carrot-and-stick approaches have failed to recognize that for North Korea’s leaders, the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear weapon is the ultimate security against American efforts to overthrow them.
Other methods of convincing North Korea to give up its quest for a nuclear ICBM do not meet the feasibility test. A military strike to destroy North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities is clearly in this category. The United States would have no way of being certain that it knew the locations of all such facilities, and many of them are undoubtedly buried underground, where they would be extremely difficult to destroy. Even if all such facilities could be destroyed, moreover, the knowledge that made them possible would still exist in the heads of North Korean scientists and engineers. It would be only a matter of time before North Korea was able to reconstitute its capabilities.
More importantly, the immediate consequences for the people of South Korea and possibly Japan could be devastating. The greater Seoul area, home to twenty-five million people, is within firing range of hundreds of North Korean artillery pieces and rocket launchers. Hundreds of North Korean ballistic missiles could reach other parts of South Korea or, if Pyongyang wished, Japan. Aside from killing and injuring thousands, such attacks could create a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented scale.
Stiffer economic sanctions are equally unfeasible. United Nations and U.S. economic sanctions have had little effect. The only country with significant economic leverage over North Korea is China. Ninety percent of North Korea’s imports are from China, and 85 percent of its exports go to China. Despite declarations that it wishes to see a denuclearized North Korea, however, Beijing to date has imposed only moderate economic pressure on the country. The reason is that China more fully appreciates Pyongyang’s nuclear motives and the implications for China’s own interests.
Nuclear weapons have negligible military value to North Korea. Any nuclear attack on the United States or its allies would likely result in the annihilation of the North Korean state and its leadership. The nuclear threat has tremendous political value as a deterrent, however. Washington has made little secret of its desire to see regime change in North Korea. The United States and South Korea unquestionably could invade North Korea and overthrow its government—as the United States did in Iraq in 2003—provided they were willing to accept the human and material costs. An operational nuclear capability, however, particularly against the United States, would practically guarantee the security of North Korea’s rulers. Facing likely death anyway, North Korea’s rulers would have little incentive to hold back if invaded. Would Washington threaten the survival of a North Korean regime willing and able to do the same to a major American city?
China’s leaders believe that, for this reason, the Pyongyang regime is unlikely to willingly give up its quest for nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them against the United States, no matter how much pressure it endures. Chinese pressure could, however, eventually provoke a coup or popular uprising in North Korea. That, in turn, could result in a civil war or breakdown of governance, likely sending millions of refugees flooding into China, and possibly even drawing China into an armed conflict in Korea.
Moreover, the collapse or overthrow of the North Korean government would likely result in North Korea eventually being absorbed into its prosperous southern neighbor, just as East Germany was absorbed into the Federal Republic of Germany in the west. The resultant expansion of the Republic of Korea to include the entire Korean Peninsula would result in a democratic nation and U.S. ally sitting right on China’s doorstep. Thus, although everything else being equal, China’s leadership would probably rather North Korea did not have nuclear weapons, it is clear from their behavior that they would rather North Korea have nuclear weapons than see it collapse.